Most Poweful Women

September 30, 2008

My favorite issue of Fortune magazine just came out with its 11th annual list of "50 Most Powerful Women" in business.  What are the trends I read between the lines and behind the impressive titles and photos?  There are several.  

  • First, half of them are under 50 and part of a cohort group I describe as Influential Insiders, in a book I am writing on women's leadership. What's an Influential Insider?  She's part of the second wave of ambitious, career-oriented women who began entering the American workforce in the early 1980's.   They arrived on the heels of the first wave professional women that I call the Pioneering Interlopers.   If the Interlopers were the marines who began storming the beaches of professions once the sole domain of men, then the Insiders were the diplomats who came on their heels.  How many times have you heard a professional woman say these words, "I'm no feminist, but . . . "?  That's a clue you're talking to an Influential Insider.  Because work environments were more welcoming by the time they arrived on the career scene, Insiders were a little softer around the edges, a little more comfortable bringing their feminine side into the office, a little savvier about fitting in and working with men as peers.  They discovered that very different skills were needed to earn seats at the tables of influence than the Interlopers needed to blast open the  executive conference room doors.  As a result, they often achieved much higher positions of power and leadership -- and at younger ages --  than the women who paved their paths of opportunity.  If you are still a little fuzzy about the significant differences between these two breeds of women leaders, think:  Senator Hillary Clinton (Interloper) and vice presidential nominee Governor Sarah Palin (Insider).  Rather than embracing and supporting the women whose shoulders they stood on, Insiders often dismissed their older professional "sisters" as "too tough" or "bitter."  But all that is water under the bridge today.  Because the reality is that it was the Influential Insiders, who arrived armed with more law degrees and MBA's than any generation of women before them, who deserve the credit for pushing up against the glass ceiling with such force, skill and political savvy that we will all soon be writing its epitaph.   


  • Second, the all-time youngest woman ever to make the list is only 33, which puts her on the leading edge of the group I call the "I'll-Do-It-My-Way-Innovators."  That's how I describe the third wave of aspiring professional women.  These achievers and developing leaders are part of the Gen Y generation, often called New Millenials.  Their stories are just being written so we can only speculate on the qualities that will define this next breed of American leader.  But they are already the focus of plenty of research because they are 70 million strong and expected to impact U.S. work and social culture as dramatically as the 76 million Baby Boomers have for the past six decades.  What do we know about Innovators?  Take a look and read about 33-year old Marissa Mayer, the COO of Google, who Fortune describes as "a self-proclaimed 'geek' (she was Google's first female engineer) . . . Overseeing thousands of engineers and product managers, she shapes the design of, Google Maps, Earth, Health, iGoogle." Expect the Innovators to be technically light years ahead of Interlopers and Insiders, attracted to new economy businesses, impatient to get to the top and perhaps the most ambitious generation of women the world has ever known. 

 Interlopers, Insiders and Innovators.  They are three very distinct breeds of ambitious, career-focused American women.  We haven't always seen eye to eye or understood one another very well.  It's time for us to put aside the differences that have fractionalized us and begin to think about what we could accomplish together.  Imagine how we could change the world if we focused some of our collective power on helping to lift the millions of women throughout the world who are looking to us for role models, understanding and a path to the legal, educational and economic opportunities that were given to us.  

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